Leadership Corner

Improving the wildland fire system together

July 13th, 2018 at 2:00PM

Acting Associate Deputy Chief Becki Lockett Heath, USDA Forest Service

The USDA Forest Service leadership forum met virtually this week to discuss how we as an agency can further improve our wildland fire system. I want to take this opportunity to share an overview of what we discussed, along with some of the key takeaways. The Leadership Forum convenes members of the national leadership council, regional and research station leadership teams, Washington Office directors, as well as graduates of the senior leader program, on a regular basis to create deeper understanding and agreement on critical issues facing the agency and to generate shared responsibility for taking action to deliver new results.

After reading this article, I invite you to join the discussion about managing change in the wildland fire system in the Leadership Corner Forum.

Improving our wildland fire system

Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen opened the forum by welcoming leaders to fully engage and share their expertise and perspectives about our topic. Following that, Station Director John Phipps and Regional Forester Cal Joyner discussed the wildland fire system we have today and how it consists of a full suite of environmental, social, political, financial and cultural factors that all produce outcomes in the wildland fire environment. With pieces connected to communities, responders and landscapes, our wildland fire system is extremely complex. Our wildland fire system has served us well for many years, but that system is changing and we must respond to those changes to continue to be successful.

Improving the wildland fire system is indeed a critical issue facing all of us. This year, USDA Forest Service leadership at all levels has taken up the challenge of improving wildland fire decision making, accountability and risk management in order to continue to improve the wildland fire system to one that more reliably protects responders and the public, sustains communities and conserves the land.

As the forum continued, a panel of experts described high leverage efforts currently underway that will allow us to continue improving the wildland fire system. They presented the concepts of decision quality and accountability for those decisions, as well as aspects concerning risk management.

Our National Fire Director Shawna Legarza made clear the need for efforts with partners, communities and cooperators before there is a fire. Jason Kuiken, Forest supervisor on the Stanislaw National Forest, talked about the need to be more deliberate with decisions and how it can improve our outcomes. Assistant Director for Risk Julian Affuso explained the various levels of risk and the importance of assessing risk in all of the work we do. Research Forester Matt Thompson presented rationale for improving decisions and how we account for them. All of these are high leverage efforts we are accomplishing together today!

We then broke into small groups to further discuss concepts presented and to seek feedback from the broad audience of leaders from around the nation. We had some very thoughtful and interesting discussions around a risk informed response to wildfire and about how ALL of the work we do involves risk and that risk considerations are important for more than just fighting fire. We also explored how fire affects our conservation mission in so many ways. Fire’s natural role in our forests and grasslands, prescribed fire and damaging severe fires all affect our work. And we asked for reflections about other change efforts in the agency, discussing in the process what made them successful.

Finally a team of senior leaders quickly reviewed small group feedback and summarized the high points with the entire forum, with the Chief bringing the forum to a close.

We always expect firefighters to be aggressive in taking necessary action and using tactics that have a high probability of success. We are a can-do organization, and that hasn’t changed. But we will not tolerate exposing our employees to unnecessary risks while in the process of fighting wildfires. Risks must have meaning and purpose. In everything we do while fighting fires, our first and most significant priority and responsibility is protecting our responders. Responders are our most important resource on the ground when fighting fires. We believe that every individual is entitled to safety in every way: physical, psychological, and social.

Our fire suppression efforts also take a financial toll and we are all beyond excited at the passing, a few months back, of the fire funding fix. This will help significantly, not only our efforts at fighting wildfires, but also at being able to run other parts of our agency more effectively and efficiently. With this fire funding fix however, there exists an expectation of fiscal responsibility on our part. And we will be fiscally responsible and transparent throughout this whole process to both Congress and the public we serve.

Your voice, your perspective matters. We all have a role to play in improving the wildland fire system. Our relationships, both inside our agency as well as across other agencies and with our various partnerships everywhere, are our key to success. We need to focus on the interconnections between different groups within the agency. Together, we must help increase awareness of the benefits of prescribed fires throughout our communities. To be effective in these efforts we need to rely upon and strengthen our partnerships. This issue is bigger than one region or one agency. We know we cannot make changes in the wildland fire system successfully without cooperators and partners. In accordance with our core values, we recognize the interdependence between us as colleagues—and between our agency and the people and communities we serve; knowing full well that what we do always has an impact on others.

Ultimately, our efforts toward improving the wildland fire system are guided by our innate desire to continually improve our national forests and grasslands. And at its core, that desire is propelled by our commitment to being good neighbors.

We are making great progress in our efforts and we need to give ourselves the chance and the space to acknowledge our significant strides in this area. And we must also acknowledge, a huge part of these efforts are being achieved through the work done in conjunction with our partners.

It was really exciting to hear the level of engagement, interest and curiosity expressed by leaders throughout the agency about this topic. Small groups of forum participants were highly engaged and explored how these concepts relate to managing fire on the landscape and how we have refocused on risk, as well as how each and every one of us has a role with fire. We also examined other change efforts in the agency and looked at them to guide these changes. We have a lot of work ahead but we also have a lot of hope that we will get there, together.

I am honored to be one of the leaders of these efforts to improve our wildland fire system to one that more reliably protects responders and the public, sustains communities and conserves the land. I look forward to further studying the feedback from the forum’s small group discussions and sharing it with all of you. 

I invite you to share ideas you have about managing change in the wildland fire system. Please click this link to join the discussion.